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Marrakech Multistakeholder Consensus: A Beginning, Not An End

Roel Uleners

On this very day two years ago, the U.S. government announced its intention to transition the stewardship of the IANA functions to the global community. These are the functions that guarantee ONE Internet for all humankind (and machinekind).  In Marrakech last week, a multistakeholder consensus proposal to execute this transition was successfully submitted to the U.S. government for final consideration.

The product of 24 months of negotiations, the proposal is another step toward the realization of the longtime goal for both ICANN and the U.S. government. It is also a triumph of the innovative multistakeholder approach that governs the transnational policy-making process of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – an organization built from the bottom-up for consensus governance of the Internet’s unique identifiers such as IP addresses and domain names.

Now, an independent ICANN is imminent, a victory for those who believe that this critical part of the Internet can be managed without the oversight of a government contract. I am certain that its multistakeholder approach will stand as a shining example not just for technical issues like the operation of the domain name system but also for the many emerging economic and societal issues of the digital world. Let me explain.

ICANN oversees global policy for only one layer of the digital space: the mostly-technical logical layer. Within the complex world of digital governance there is another layer on top of the one in which ICANN resides: the economic and societal layer (see the graphic: Three Layers of Digital Governance). This top layer is where we all live and work on the Internet, from access and content sharing, to commerce and security.

The world needs a 21st century governance framework for the economic and societal layer. Innovative global digital rules must be built in concert with local rules. This balancing act is the dilemma facing the digital world. We are faced with the need to integrate the “horizontal” and borderless digital axis, with the largely “vertical” local/national/international governance axis of the 20th century.

With the successful delivery of a proposal for the transition of the stewardship of the IANA functions, we have proven that a transnational, multistakeholder approach with effective government participation can work without residing within a purely vertical governmental or intergovernmental model. ICANN's approach delivers results for the technical logical layer. But can it work for the more complex economic and societal layer?

It is at this economic and societal layer that we now face the dangerous prospect of fragmentation, with countries – desperate to contain the unrelenting digital progress – calling for control of what goes on within national borders. Building broad collaboration on a set of global rules – that fully consider local realities – can ensure that governments don’t separately create their own sets of competing rules, resulting in serious (and possibly irreversible) digital fractures.

Meanwhile, the complexity grows unabated. More issues will emerge as world enters this digital century, with the Internet of things looming largest. By 2030, Janusz Bryzek of U.S. manufacturing corporation Fairchild Industries has estimated there will be more than 100 trillion sensors digitally connecting the human and natural environment in a global distributed intelligent network (today we only have 14 billion). This advancement holds the promise of democratizing economic life, through the connection and collaboration of the entire human race. However, our success will be determined by how we manage this networked reality addressing issues such as human boundaries and security to maintain trust in the digital world.

This emerging need for transnational solutions will be my focus as I move beyond my role as CEO at ICANN into new positions with the World Economic Forum, and my dual fellowships at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. We must begin to courageously innovate in governance mechanisms and approaches for the digital world, ensuring that they operate with trust and authenticity in concert with the established national/international systems of governance.

Stay tuned to this space as I continue on my post-ICANN journey, anchoring my efforts and focus on how we can leverage the lessons of ICANN’s pursuit of the multistakeholder consensus to aid in the development of similar transnational collaborations for the next layer of our digital world.